EPICURIOUS: KITCHEN CHEMISTRY

June 09, 2019

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San Francisco has the biggest and oldest Chinatown in the world, and the food scene there caters to the large number of people of Chinese ethnicity. Their presence stems from the labour that flocked to America in the 19th century to build railway tracks that were crucial to uniting a vast country.

Visiting my son Shakir and his family in California’s Bay Area, we found ourselves in Chinatown, aiming to eat at the Z and Y Restaurant that had been much recommended. But when we got there at around 5:45pm, we found around 20 people already waiting for a table.

The Z and Y doesn’t book tables, so you write your name, and wait to be called. We waited patiently for nearly an hour, with growing impatience. A photograph of Barrack Obama eating here was a solace, although I doubt if he was made to wait on the sidewalk. It must be said that the restaurant’s exterior seemed just as dingy as its less successful neighbours.

There is a science involved in the kitchen and following it produces best results

However, I’m glad to write that the food was worth the wait when we were finally seated and served. The menu was Szechuan, a style of Chinese cuisine that is usually fiery hot. But because of Shakir’s two sons, Danyaal and Sulli, we asked for medium-hot spicing. The Mongolian beef was excellent, with tender and succulent meat stir-fried with spring onions, Sichuan peppercorns, red chillies, and a bit of brown sugar that took the edge off the red chillies — sensational blend of flavours.

The roast Beijing duck arrived with the regulation pancakes, sliced spring onions, cucumber and plum sauce. While the dish was competently done, it was not exceptional. The kids asked for chicken cooked in an orange sauce and prawns deep-fried in batter. Both were good, but were hardly the Z and Y’s specialities. I would like to return, but the thought of the long wait is a deterrent, especially as there are so many other excellent Chinese restaurants to check out on my visit.

Shakir has developed his skills in the kitchen since he moved to the US around five years ago, but it is on the barbecue that he excels. He has a large gas-fired Weber in the garden, and uses it a lot. As a purist, I prefer a charcoal grill, but using gas allows you to control the temperature with a degree of precision that’s not possible with coal or wood.

The other day, at a spontaneous party at his place that went from zero guests in the morning to 15 adults and eight kids, he went shopping and bought four large cuts of beef called ball tips here, weighing around four pounds each, a side of salmon and two dozen chicken sausages. Ramping up the Weber’s temperature to 400 degrees with the lid closed, Shakir then slapped on the meat, and the fish followed a few minutes later. The salmon obviously cooked more quickly, and was removed as soon as it was done. The thick slabs of beef took around 15 minutes to achieve a seared exterior and a juicy pink interior.

This is the perpetual goal of the amateur cook: how to ensure that the outer surface doesn’t get burned while the centre is cooked just right. Kenji Lopez-Alt provides some answers in his book The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science. A scientist and food writer, one of the things he emphasises is the importance of resting roasts and steaks after cooking them. According to the writer, the muscles in the meat do not retain juices at higher temperature, so if you slice them when they are just out of the oven or the frying pan, a significant amount of flavoursome liquid will flow out. Once the temperature drops, however, these yummy juices will be retained.

More lessons in kitchen chemistry to follow.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 9th, 2019